What works and what doesn't work in software development? For the first 10 years or so of my career, we followed a strict waterfall development model. Then in 2008 we started switching to an agile development model. In 2011 we added DevOps principles and practices. Our product team has also become increasingly global. This blog is about our successes and failures, and what we've learned along the way.

The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent IBM's positions, strategies or opinions. The comments may not represent my opinions, and certainly do not represent IBM in any way.

Friday, January 27, 2012

How can you make remote development work?

I have a few years of experience with working from home, and several years of experience with working with cross-site teams. There are a few things that are necessary for a remote worker. A remote worker needs to be:
  • Motivated
  • Independent
  • Self-managing
  • Responsible
  • Good at time management
  • Excellent at communications (oral and written)
  • Honest and trustworthy
  • Good at ignoring distractions
  • Willing to ask for help if needed

While most of these are disciplines that you can get better at with practice, some are harder to learn.

Working from home can be great, but it's a special skill, because it's easy to get distracted with things that need to be done around the house. Also, there's no one there to see if you're goofing off, so you have to motivate yourself to focus on the task at hand. It's easier to focus and be productive if you have specific tasks that are due on a regular (daily) basis. Scrum helps with this by providing a quick daily checkpoint meeting.

Ideally, remote workers should be in the same time zone as each other, or at least close to the same time zone. I've found that working with people 5 hours away (the UK, for example) is workable. You just learn to block off your mornings for communication and meetings, and do independent work in the afternoons and evenings. Working with people 7 or more hours away is painful. You end up losing days of work because you can't find someone who can help you get past a blocking issue. Perhaps you send an email describing a problem and asking for help... then the person on the other end misunderstands something... and now you're into a second lost day. We work with people in India, but they're actually on a 12-8 PM working schedule, so we at least have a couple of hours of overlapping time in the Eastern US. While you *can* call people early in the morning or late in the evening to keep things moving along, nobody likes to do that on a daily basis.

One other tip, especially for software engineers, is that it really helps to bring people into the office for a week or so, once or twice a year. First of all, face to face communication is high-bandwidth, so you can get a lot of work done in a short amount of time (planning, design work, strategy sessions, training, etc.). People tend to trust and respect each other a little more once they've met in person. They're also more comfortable asking questions, or asking each other for favors, which means people are more productive when they get home. Finally, it builds a stronger team and improves morale.

A year or two ago, multinational development teams (even within one scrum team) were the norm here. But we're trying to consolidate projects locally as much as we can now. My current project is probably 75% local and 25% remote.

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